Ash vs Evil Dead, the TV series sequel to the original Evil Dead films starts on October 31. As is becoming increasingly common thanks to the rise of streaming services in Australia, I’ll be able to watch it fast-tracked without subscribing to Foxtel or forking out for an iTunes season pass, and in HD and without ads to boot. Stan is streaming it a few hours before its US broadcast.
Given the cult status of the original films and this unusual TV series continuation with the original star (Bruce Campbell) and director (Sam Raimi), I’m going to check it out. But I’d also like to be able to appreciate how the story is finally resuming and how the passage of time has changed how the material is handled, so I’m going to watch the original trilogy in the lead-up to the premiere. Raimi and Campbell have wanted to make an Evil Dead 4 for years, and for some reason it’s finally been greenlit despite the recent remake. Not as a film, however, but as a 30-minute TV series on Starz.
Coming soon after Netflix’s Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp, which reunited the creators and all the original cast on the small screen despite their huge careers, Ash vs Evil Dead continues a trend where moving to TV is no longer a comedown for a film series. Both shows are on prestige venues rather than some basic cable backwater.
I saw bits and pieces of Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness over a decade ago, and recall enjoying their exuberant, demented sense of humour. Raimi’s trademark manic camerawork and Campbell’s frenzied mugging were exhilarating to watch, and I was impressed by how intensely energetic they were for horror comedies. For some reason I never got around to watching the entire trilogy, although because the original was reportedly more of a straight horror film – and a very gory one at that – I probably procrastinated.
But no, there’s a TV continuation to prepare for, dammit, so I bit the bullet. And the first trailer for the series was so entertaining that I expected the films would be worth it.
While The Evil Dead might be more serious than its sequels, it’s still tongue-in-cheek and deliberately over the top. Made for little money in cold conditions with relatively inexperienced actors, The Evil Dead nonetheless manages to be a confident and suspenseful horror film even though the monsters and gore are so outlandish. The premise is standard: college kids stay in a remote cabin in the woods and encounter something supernatural. In this case, they accidentally summon demons who periodically possess them, transforming them into white-eyed, deep-voiced monstrosities the others have to fend off.
The makeup is somehow both ridiculous and repugnant, just like the gore. I shouldn’t have been repelled by violence when the low albeit clever production values are so evident, but I was. Raimi is unrelenting in throwing wet, grisly imagery at us, aiming at gorehounds and those who find over-the-top violence hilarious rather than off-putting. I don’t qualify as either but I can see the black comedy in gore sometimes, which was my memory of Evil Dead 2. But this was a bit too much to take. I admire the ingenuity but the violence reached that sustained level where the momentum of a sequence dissipates, the camera lingering greedily on the viscera.
The suspense and comedy were worthwhile though. Raimi was skilled from the get-go at using silence and space judiciously to keep us uneasy. The Evil Dead has some long, eerie scenes of characters exploring dark rooms as our dread grows. But impressively, Raimi was also happy to mock the tropes of the genre. The actors respond to the monsters and scares with such deliberate hamminess that the movie is both a genuine horror film and a gleeful spoof. And although the gore is gross, some of it is so ludicrously excessive (like the gushing torrent of blood that falls on Ash) that Raimi seems to be mocking ever putting these kinds of moments in a film at all.
Raimi’s signature camerawork is a standout too, giving this 1981 film a propulsive energy that would work well in any film today. As with many innovations, it was born out of necessity. With no steadicams, the camera operators ran across the woods towards the cabin, the frame shaking but the shot tracking forward ravenously to cheaply convey the demons’ hungry intensity. The famous final shot towards Ash was achieved by placing the camera on a motorbike.
Raimi would combine this technique with rapid editing in the sequel to create a signature look befitting films that are truly distinctive. The Evil Dead films aren’t quite horror, or comedy, or even simply a combination of the two. Instead they’re simply an expression of the sensibilities of Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell, and their collaborators, fusing disparate influences into a whole that appeals to them but resists easy categorisation. This distinctive vision is no doubt a big reason for the love and loyalty these films have earned, and its beginnings are evident in The Evil Dead. However, I doubt I’ll ever watch it again.